Monday, 23 February 2015

Cycling in Kerala - the poo expert

One of my fellow riders in Kerala was a poo expert. No mere amateur enthusiast: Johnny is a respected authority on the subject. 

Perhaps inevitably, his interest originated in public school. A preoccupation with bowel movements is generally found among the very elderly or the well educated. 

Every morning Johnny would quiz the assembled group on the results of their bathroom endeavours. Every morning I would refuse to answer on the grounds that I didn't know him well enough. 

All that changed one day when the two of us were, appropriately, bringing up the rear. The stomach cramps which I'd been experiencing for the previous 40 mins could be ignored no longer. 

"Quick! Hold my bike - I've got 30 seconds left!" I gasped, plunging down the hillside to be explosively, dramatically, ill.

Eventually, I got to my feet and climbed shakily, to the roadside. 

"What a wonderful spot to choose, there was an eagle overhead," he happily exclaimed, before gathering together his toilet roll stash and proffering half to me, "Just in case."

"Johnny, tomorrow morning when you do your round-up...I think you know me well enough now," I conceded. 

Cycling in Kerala - bicycles welcome

In the UK we talk a lot about The Cycling Problem. We agonise over infrastructure and consider whether, if only riders were a little more visible, they might be a bit less dead.

In Kerala, the roads are a hot, noisy, dusty stage for a fast moving ballet of vehicles, pedestrians and animals. Horns sound, endlessly. Lorries, cars and motorcycles weave between lanes, certain collision averted in a heartbeat. 

Into this mechanical soup, throw five English cyclists. Stand back, check insurance policies. Close eyes and pray to any number of local Gods.

Except, after the initial shock and no little awe, it wasn't like that. 

Soon, we were doing a spot of weaving ourselves. We grew confident that the buses thundering past, inches away, wouldn't skin our elbows, or worse. We even acquired our own horns, calling "Beep beep," as unwary pedestrians drifted into our path. I came to feel safer cycling on the chaotic Indian roads than on some of the A-roads near to my home. 
Kate and Sanjeev 

In Kerala we grew to trust our fellow road users. They were neither malign nor maladroit. We saw countless near misses but no disasters. At the root of the road craft was an absence of rancour. Instead of blindly observing rules and lambasting any real or perceived transgression, Keralan motorists share a fluid, harmonious desire to reach their destination while doing no harm. 

It's not a cacophany. When you look more closely, it's beautifully orchestrated jazz. 

There are no traffic tribes, here. No assumption that mode of transport maketh man. Best of all, no antipathy towards cyclists. When passengers hang out of car windows they don't hurl epithets, they call greetings, take photographs or shout the frequent enquiry: "Where are you going?"
Young motorists rush to be pictured with the cyclists

Children ran out of their homes to wave as we pedalled past. Their parents waved. People hung out of cars to wave. 

Once, as we rested in a layby, a jeep screeched to a halt beside us. A group of young men tumbled out and came running towards us. They spoke no English but were carrying camera phones. Eventually it became clear that what they wanted wasn't our purses or even our peanut brittle. The boisterous group simply wanted to  have their photographs taken alongside the funny-looking cyclists. 

Throughout our trip I saw the guides concerned for our safety just once. That wasn't because of a rumbling lorry or speeding motorcycle. It was because we were in elephant country and they had just spotted fresh dung at the side of the track.

Sharing the road

Use of the horn between sunrise and sunset (compulsory)
Beep.........I am rapidly approaching to your right
Beep.........I am overtaking
Beep.........Hey, look, we made it!
Beep.........Thank you. 
Beep.........I met your cousin in Allepey this morning. He says hello
Beep.........I know you are there. I am just behaving as though I can't see you because it amuses me
Beep.........OK, knock yourself out. Go for that gap if you don't care if you never see your children again
Beep........I am rounding a blind bend. I am not adjusting my speed in any way
Beep, Beep, Beeeeeeep...........You were overtaking too. What bold fellows we are!
Beep........Can someone move that buffalo?
Beep........A cyclist. Oh look, more of them. What a joyful day this is!
Beep........Where are you going?

The cycling tour of Kerala was arranged through Pedal Nation, flying to Cochi with Emirates

Cycling in Kerala - Fifty Shades of Green

I had heard that Kerala was beautiful. Together with the amazing vegetarian food, that was one of the reasons I wanted to visit. 

Nothing, though, prepared me for the totally breathtaking scenery, nor the astonishing variety of landscape. Turning a corner, waking on a new dawn, brought a new country within a state. 

So much of Kerala is green. The lush landscapes are partly the result of the forty-two rivers which slake the sun baked earth, partly due to careful management of the land which ensures that Kerala feeds the rest of India.
Tea plantations in the mountains near Munnar

Cycling is a wonderful way to experience Kerala in all its shades of green.  We rode through rubber plantations, by banana groves and in the shade of coconut palms. We wound our way up hillsides on which clung neat rows of tea plants a century old. We rode through cardamon forests by rice fields and high above tapestries of small holdings. Some crops, like beans, onions and even cabbages, were unexpectedly familiar.  Others, like the ubiquitous jack-fruit, more exotic. 

Rice fields at sunset
Kerala doesn't only bewitch with its beauty, it beguiles with intoxicating aromas stirred by the cooling breeze. Sweet vanilla, spices and coffee grounds drying on sheets outside people's homes, fish tangled in sun-bleached nets, cocoa beans crushed beneath our bicycle tyres.  

Curry leaves grew in abundance: a Vesta vista. 

'God's own country' supplies nuts and spices to the rest of the world. Large scale production is achieved through surprisingly small scale farming; cottage industries sustaining families and village communities. We saw ginger being harvested, passed by trees hung with clove flowers, pepper seeds and cashews. 

Coconut water, straight from the tree
Of all crops, it is the coconut which is most thoroughly exploited.  Visiting the lagoon-side home of a local guide, we watched a wiry worker shimmy into coconut palms high above our heads using a set of hydraulic calipers strapped to his legs. Having cut down some fruit he hacked off the tops to offer delicious, cooling coconut water fresh from the tree.

Coconut made an appearance in almost every dish we ate: from the squares of sweet coconut bread at breakfast to the steamed dumplings and fragrant curries. For snacks when energy flagged there were crispy fried banana fritters, studded with chunks of moist coconut flesh. Coconut oil and milk leant richness to fragrant dishes, we even pedalled off the track one stiflingly hot afternoon to explore a 'toddy parlour' serving a local spirit distilled from the fruit.

Home produced: lunch, served on a banana leaf

We asked how the pokey liquor was produced and were told that the coconut flower is sealed in clay and hit with a buffalo bone. The truth of that account may be in doubt but certainly, sipping the yeasty liquid did make me feel as though I'd been beaten around the brow with a buffalo bone. 

We saw coconut fibres being spun, then woven into mats. Even the husks are not wasted, providing hanging baskets for orchid plants outside the home. 

Self sufficient, sustainable and varied, Kerala made me green with envy.  

My cycling trip in Kerala was arranged through Pedal Nation, flying to Cochin with Emirates Airline

Cycling in Kerala - Johnson, so good they named him twice

Easily the most important member of our group to me - a weaker cyclist than my companions - was the only person not on a bike.

When we rode along roads suitable for vehicles, our support vehicle came too. The minibus contained a spare bike, copious quantities of bottled water, a coffee table and an ever changing array of tasty treats. 

Our first full day of cycling began at the end of a long and painful night for me. A migraine had kept me awake and sick, unable even to swallow water. I knew that I would be incapable of riding a full day in the saddle, particularly in the Indian heat. My introduction to the recovery vehicle then, was when I climbed aboard at the end of the early, off-road section of the route. 

I asked the driver his name: "Johnson," he replied. Days later, when other riders had planted a seed of doubt, I asked again "Is your name really Johnson?" He confirmed that it was. "Is that your first name, or your family name?"


Johnson Johnson. So good they named him twice. 

We soon grew to eagerly anticipate the Johnson Snacks we would find neatly set out on his coffee table as we rounded a bend in the road. Oranges, bananas, cashew nuts, mango juice and best of all, peanut brittle kept us going when the going got tough and the saddle sore. 
Johnson Snacks, ready and waiting

On long, seemingly endless climbs, the bus would be there, a hand extended out of the window, a thumbs-up. When I could pedal no more, a blissfully soft seat and the cooling balm of air conditioning restored my spirits. 

I have two special Johnson moments. The first came as I approached an insanely busy junction a short distance behind the rest of the group. Four lanes of road producing at least eight lanes of traffic.  Thundering lorries, blaring horns. 

Into the noise I muttered "F**k, what do I do here?" Then the answer appeared: Johnson was standing at the crossroads, a solid, immovable presence. Grinning, he stopped the traffic while I cycled across. 

"If there was a fire, you'd want Johnson to be there to put it out," said Kate. 

My second Johnson moment came on the evening of my birthday. It was the second of three nights on a houseboat and we were enjoying a few beers alongside our bikes on the upper deck of the boat.  Suddenly, Johnson appeared. He was carrying a beautiful garland of flowers, a stunning cake ordered by my wonderful fellow cyclists and a mystery object the cause of much mirth among Johnson and our guides Sanjeev and Ancel. 

The nature of the mystery object was revealed after dinner when all three men, helped by the kitchen team and ultimately by the crew of a neighbouring boat attempted to open it. Finally, a fountain of sparkly paper fired into the air and settled on the table. 

Johnson hadn't been working with us that day and had spent his free time obtaining the cake and driving out to the boat to deliver it in person.  
Johnson (left), with Sanjeev and Ancel

I travelled to Kerala with Pedal Nation and flew with Emirates Airline